Multilingual women, where are you?

In late January, I had a Skype call with Benny Lewis for about two hours to discuss our language learning trajectories and I asked him why there were more male linguists showing their foreign language prowess online than females. I couldn’t find any women on You Tube or elsewhere on the Internet. As he elaborated last week in his blog post, Girls vs guys and the dancing-monkey reason to learn a language, Benny thinks it’s because men like to show off. He referred me to Jennifer Wagner of IE Languages to whom I posed the same question. Jennifer also wrote a blog post inquiring, Female Polyglots and Language Learners – Where Are You?

When I asked Claude Cartaginese of the Polyglot Project, he pointed me to a You Tube video he had posted asking, Where Are the Girls? The comments to his video indicated that some women may not want to post videos because they would be harassed by men or have to endure comments about their looks.

More women studying languages, fewer using them openly

Conventional wisdom (whether it’s true or false, I don’t know) claims that women learn languages better than men because of women’s natural proclivity to communication. I don’t know any statistics on language learning by gender so I am basing this on my own observations.

I’ve given many presentations about my book, Language is Music, and there are always more women in the audience than men. In October 2010, the US Consulate in St Petersburg, Russia organized three presentations for me at two educational institutions and one library cultural center and men made up less than 10% of the attendees. In October 2009, the US Embassy in Doha, Qatar organized a presentation for me at the Al Bayan Girls School and I was beyond impressed with the girls. Not only did they speak excellent English in addition to their native Arabic, but they were learning other languages on their own! They told me about how they were learning Japanese from anime movies. Their knowledge of languages and cultures would put most US high school students –both male and female– to shame.

So why do I see so few women out there waxing in other tongues?

Men and women, different languages
Men and women, different languages

Digital divide based on gender?

At first I thought it was a digital divide issue because it has been shown that there are fewer women than men using the Internet. Even Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, has admitted that a small percentage of Wikipedia editors and contributors are male and that he wants to get more women to use the site.

In part, I am sure that part of the reason we see more men than women actively showing their language ability is due to the digital divide. However, I think there are reasons that pre-date Cyberspace. I personally know more male than female polyglots although I see more women studying languages.

Other reasons why more men may pursue languages than women.

I am basing the following thoughts on my own experiences and those of other women. I welcome your thoughts on the topic because my goal is to encourage women to speak languages. If we can identify the road blocks that prevent women from going ahead with language learning, then we can figure out ways to get rid of those blocks.

1. Don’t outshine men

If one of the reasons that polyglot men like to show their talents on the Internet is because they like a boost to their egos, then perhaps it’s the exact opposite problem for women.

Both men and women have told me to hide my linguistic abilities (I speak seven languages) and vast travel and cultural experience to not outshine men. We’re in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean that old gender roles don’t exist.

A female relative of mine consciously did not talk about literature or history around her late husband because he wasn’t as cultured as she was and she didn’t want to hut his fragile male ego. She suggested I do the same or else men would be overwhelmed by me. This woman’s late husband would read her emails and listen to all her calls because he was jealous and possessive. Once I realized that she accepted how her husband acted like a prison guard, I stopped soliciting or listening to any of her advice.

I am certain I’m not the only women was has been told to shut up and look pretty and hide her intelligence.

I didn’t hide my languages because of those sexist ideas. I simply didn’t know what to do with my language skills until just a few years ago when I published Language is Music. But I did have an instance in Ukraine when my coworker and I decided it would be best I not show that I could speak Russian so that the people we would talk to would speak to our interpreter and address both of us rather than only speak to me. My colleague was Swiss and didn’t speak Russian. That was super hard to do because I had to stop reacting to what people say and hide my emotions. Some Ukrainians guessed that I spoke Russian because my eyes reacted to their words.

Perhaps other women have learned languages and have stopped pursuing them or maintaining them because the men around them don’t value languages or are jealous.

2. Languages undervalued in the workplace

Statistics show that women make less money than men. Women’s contribution in the workforce is undervalued not just financially but also in recognition and job promotion.  Foreign language ability is also undervalued in the workforce, especially when the boss is monolingual and doesn’t see the value in having a polyglot who can work with international clients and colleagues.

My first job out of college was for the US Department of Commerce in Silicon Valley. I was hired precisely because I spoke Russian and there was an upcoming trade summit between then Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin. I got to meet Russian VIPs including Governors and diplomats and be their guide. I was only 21 years old! Then I worked on organizing a trade mission of Silicon Valley companies to Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Guess whose Spanish knowledge was key in that work? (I was just starting to study Portuguese.)

Less than a year on the job, I worked with a Colombian-born colleague to arrange an agricultural trade mission to an agricultural trade show in Sinaloa, Mexico. I definitely used my Spanish to get that together. I even had to translate some materials myself. But some moron at the Commerce Department decided to send a Japanese speaking colleague of mine to Mexico instead of me! American taxpayer money had to pay for this man to have an English-Spanish interpreter at this Mexican agricultural fair where his Japanese was worthless. My supervisor said he was sorry but that the Japanese speaker had more seniority than I did and he was going to go. Had my supervisor had any international experience himself, he might have realized how ridiculous it was to send someone to a rural area of Mexico, where few people could speak English.

I was furious! As a taxpayer, I’d be angry too as this was more proof of government waste.

Are there other women out there who use their languages at work and get passed up for international assignments by other people with more seniority but without the appropriate language skills?

3. Difficulty in traveling or living abroad

In countries where women aren’t in public life and where men and women can’t be friends (because the genders don’t mix), women have more hurdles than men do in practicing their language. 

In cultures when men and women don’t mix, an innocent foreign woman trying to practice her language skills may be interpreted the wrong way. There’s a stereotype of the “easy” Western woman and some foreign men in traditional gender separated cultures may consider a Western woman smiling and talking to him as a sign of her sexual interest in him.

I took an Arabic class one summer in California and tried practicing my limited vocabulary wherever I could. Most Arab-operated businesses in the San Francisco area are run by men. While buying something at a Palestinian corner market in San Francisco, I tried using my Arabic numbers when counting my change or doing something else involving numbers. The cashier was very keen on helping me learn Arabic numbers, especially his phone number. I politely declined, but he followed me out of the store and yelled to me on the street reminding me to come back and get his number for more free Arabic lessons.

4. Standing out

Being the odd person out may discourage women from pursuing their languages in the countries where they are spoken.

A dark haired and brown-eyed Spanish woman told me that when she was living in Syria studying Arabic, her blond-haired and blond-eyed Spanish female friend was constantly harassed on the streets because she stood out so much. (The brown haired girl could easily pass as Arab.) I know there are Arab women with light features, but a Western woman can really stand out, especially in areas where there are more men on the street than women. In her case, I’d dye my hair a dark color. But even if one dresses modestly, standing out can still be hard to avoid. When I was in Doha, Qatar, I still got looks and stares from men even though I was completely covered. There were a lot more men in the country than women and I didn’t see any Western women walking around by themselves like I was.

Recently I spoke to a white woman blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who grew up in Japan until she was 11 and spoke native Japanese. When she returned to Japan as an adult, she had trouble making Japanese friends even though her Japanese was native. Japanese men wouldn’t hit on/flirt with Western women unless they were looking for a one-night stand in some touristy area. While Western men, no matter their level of Japanese or attractiveness, were a hot commodity for Japanese women who wanted to leave the country and/or be with a white guy. The bottom line is that there was little incentive for a Western woman to learn Japanese and live in Japan, while reasons abounded for foreign men.

My examples here are all of white Western women, but the same could be true for anyone who is physically and culturally different. My sister lived in Ecuador and told me that Asian Americans had a hard time working in indigenous areas in Ecuador because the indigenous people treated Asians poorly. An African woman in Russia might be harassed or beaten as hate crimes there are prevalent.

Do you know of other reasons that may prevent women from learning and using their languages? Do you have any solutions or suggestions to help women overcome the roadblocks? Please comment below.


  1. You lightly passed over a detail that I think is rather important: most of us know more male polyglots than female, even as we know more females who are interested in, or are taken classes in, a foreign language. nnI think the distinction needs to be addressed in two parts. First, the fact that there are more male polyglots seems to me more-or-less in line with Benny’s dancing monkey theory. While I would argue some finer points, I think the underlying peacockery (genetic imperative?) is a leading cause for male polyglottery, and since this particular motivation doesn’t exist for most women, they become polyglots only for more rare, more pragmatic reasons.nnSecond, the fact that more women study a language stems in my own mind from a certain romantic idea. When I was in school, girls took languages like French and Italian because they loved to think about the renaissance, while boys took languages likes Spanish or German because they were either “more practical”, or just “cool.” Similarly, when I talk to females who have traveled abroad, most of them have been to Paris, or Rome, or Venice, while most men have been to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin. (Maybe we can blame society for giving girls the princess books and dollies, and giving boys the fire trucks and toy guns, though many evolutionary biologists have done studies which show this is genetic, not societal.) In any case, the core motivation for learning a language is quite obviously different for males than for females.nnAnd third, even though I said it would be in two parts, I think it’s worth looking at where these two concepts come together… and that’s at the point where most women only learn one language. They may reach fluency, or they may forget everything after school, or they may fall somewhere in the middle, but in most cases, they don’t bother trying another one. Men, on the other hand, seem to have nothing stopping them from trying another language, even before they’ve reached any usable skill level in their first. It’s not uncommon to find a man who can say “hello, goodbye, please, and thank you” in a dozen languages, but can’t say much more than that in any of them!nnDo I think this is the be-all-end-all answer to the gender divide? No. But I think it’s a highly relevant detail that’s being left out of the debate on all sides.

    • Randy,

      Thanks for your thought-out response.

      Good points. You reminded me of a male friend of mine who studied abroad in Paris while he was a student at Stanford. He was the only male in the program in Paris and he was a comparative literature major and gay. (This is not to say that heterosexual men don’t learn French. I do know several heterosexual males who are francophones and proud of it!) He said most of the girls in the program had romantic ideas about finding a French boyfriend, going to the ballet and living l’amour à la française.

      The utility argument is a valid one. I am glad I studied and learned French before Spanish because I doubt if I had gone for the more useful language first that I would have then gone onto French as it’s less useful (living in California). I studied Italian for the pure love of how it sounded. I never thought of its utility, although I did get a job in Italian wine sales precisely because I could speak Italian. I can’t recall why I started with Portuguese, it was definitely not because I was considering its usefulness given the potential economic growth of Brazil. I’m just lucky that I happened to have chosen some languages that had a professional use later on.

      This conversation is making me think that what needs to be done is to highlight HOW women have used their multiple language skills post- high school and college to encourage young women to keep studying and acquiring more languages.

    • Randy, with all due respect, I completely disagree with your second point. I’m a woman. I studied Spanish in high school because it was (I thought) far more practical as a US citizen. Come to find out years later, French would have been just as helpful in my work (forgot about all those Quebecois-French speaking Canadians). Then I learned Russian because it’s cool–I was fascinated with the Space Race and Cold Waru00a0and international espionage and spy movies. I maintain my Russian so that I can talk with my Russian friends (whom I met while travelling internationally–my first overseas trip was to Russia and it’s still the country I’ve visited most often–even more than Canada). My choice in languages had absolutely nothing to do with romance or the renaissance and everything to do with practicality and the “cool factor”.nnMy only interest in French or Italian now is that they would be fairly easy to pick up now that I speak another Romance language. Ditto Ukrainian (although I love Ukrainian rock groups like u041eu043au0435u0430u043d u0415u043bu044cu0437u0438 and u0421.u041a.u0410.u0419. and wouldn’t mind understanding the lyrics better.)u00a0Swedish, Tatar or Turkish, Arabic…these interest me, though, because they’re (mostly)u00a0unrelated to the other languages that I already speak and (with Arabic epecially) I’m interested in being a well-rounded citizen of our world. And I suppose my interest in so many other languages disagrees with your third point.

  2. When I grew up I was really afraid I’m too smart and know too much to ever get a boyfriend – because we ARE told “men’t ego is fragile”. nnGuess what.nnIt’s a myth. nnJust like most of the little nasty voices inside your head telling you you can’t, your accent stinks, your vocabulary is wrong, people are going to laugh at you, they are going to think you are full of yourself, someone is going to get angry, they won’t play with you, they won’t like you, you will get nasty comments, your hair is dirty, your camera isn’t that good, blah blah blah. nnNone of that matters. nnYou see, people are afraid that if you shine, they can’t. That there is only one spot to shine, and if that’s taken, what about my dreams? I’m only trilingual now, I might never become a “true” polyglot (as if trilingual wasn’t that already), and if YOU are the “Lady Polyglot” out there, what about me?nPeople don’t get it that there are millions of stars on the sky, and they all shine by their best ability. There are dozens of stars in Hollywood and they all shine and are just as much stars as the next one. And there’s always room for more stars… And if languages is what makes you shine, you should do that. Shine, girl, shine! Make the world a brighter place!nnAfter all, you HAVE outshined a lot of people, Susanna… you have written a book, you have been invited to talk, you are on the internet and youtube and… I’m sure you have your share of negative experience, but be honest now… you did already when you tried not to outshine others, didn’t you. So, what has changed? You shine… and the more you shine, the less you will notice the nay-sayers… and the happier you are. It’s much easier to take the negative things in life when you’re happy and doing something to reach your dreams, than when you are trying your best to be just like everyone else and not “outshine” anyone else. Isn’t it? :-DnnIn the end, when it comes to the majority of people, men AND women, living in Western world today, the only thing standing between you and your dreams is you.nnYour friend attracted to her this insecure person who decided to act as her owner, because she didn’t think she was worth anything better, and neither did he. Both were rewarded with what they wanted, and that is why they stayed in the situation. Sometimes people want things that are not good for them. Sometimes people mistake what they can get with what they want and need… There are complex psychological games going on behind the scene, and even though we all have our problems that make us behave more or less dysfunctionally, situations like your friend’s are not the norm and not usual.

  3. I wanted to say this too, but I went somewhere else, and started doing something else, and forgot… sorry.nnWomen make less money than men, because they don’t ask enough paid for their work. Simple as that. I really wish women stopped whining and started doing something about it.nnYou were passed at job by someone with seniority. The example is totally irrelevant to a discussion about why female language learners and polyglots aren’t as visible as male. nGuess why? There are tons of male junior polyglots who get passed by monoglot seniors. nAnd guess what else… perhaps this senior had something you didn’t have that was more valuable than language skills. Things like experience, knowledge, relations etc. seniors usually have more of than juniors.nnEven though I think it’s about as easy for women to travel and learn languages abroad as it is for men, because even though there are these different cultural codes for men and women, men and women both exist all over the world. Find the women in your target country, tell them you’re coming and let them take care of you. Don’t go there with the arrogant imperialistic “I’ll just go anywhere I want because I’m American/British/French/what ever you are, and if anyone has any problems, I’m going to scream and kick and fight”. Have some respect.nI am a bit irritated by all these scary stories that do nothing but scare women from going out there and traveling… nI was thinking about Callan Pinckney, who walked around the world – mostly alone – with nothing but a rucksack, for 11 years, and guess what? She was not raped, abducted, beaten or anything else. If she could do it, so can you and anyone else.nI was thinking about Dominick Arduin, a female explorer. Now, she didn’t have such a nice end to her story. She most probably fell in the ice and drowned. She has not been found. Nevertheless, she didn’t allow her gender and people’s opinions stop her from doing what she wanted to do.nnBesides, you don’t need to leave your home to learn languages. I’m quite happy with my English, I don’t even have much problems speaking it. I have been abroad for… about three weeks in my life. The rest I have spent in Finland and Sweden, and I speak Finnish and Swedish, so I didn’t need English in either country. All you need is an internet connection and you’re good to go. Now, it would be better to have a good internet connection, so that you can listen to stream and watch videos and movies etc. nn”The bottom line is that there was little incentive for a Western woman to learn Japanese and live in Japan, while reasons abounded for foreign men.” Yeah… you can’t get laid, you can’t get a boyfriend and you can’t get married. Why would you go at all? nnMy advice is to get a pen pal, or several, in the country you want to go, and have an active letter writing life, preferably in years, but months are enough. Especially the Japanese are wonderful pen pals, and they will treat you in the best way possible when you finally go there.nnOr get a job.nnYeah, you can’t just take your backbag and just appear somewhere and think they will be kind, generous, hospitable and give you anything you need, just because you’re there. Most men who travel to learn languages don’t do that either.

  4. Randy,nnYOU might know more male polyglots, who might know more males, but that doesn’t mean MOST of “us” know more male polyglots.nAlso, we don’t know anything about how interested people are about languages. You can’t really use the attendance in school and classes as a sign of interest, especially when it comes to polyglots, who most, if not all, have learned their languages on their own. nnThe fact that we SEE more male polyglots in the YouTube could possibly be because of the “dancing monkey” theory. Some of them are just roosters showing off. Not all, though. And even though the “bigger, stronger, faster, more” reasoning is, in my mind, rather typically male, it doesn’t mean the other reasons to learn languages are responsible for less polyglots… and most of the monkeys and peacocks are also butterflies. Here today, gone tomorrow. Not really what we mean with polyglots, don’t you agree.nn”more pragmatic reasons”, like princess dreams of Renaissance Italy? nnThe reason to why people – men and women – learn languages is rather irrelevant when it comes to the birth of a polyglot. French is just as much a language as Dutch.u00a0 They all count.nSomeone studied most of his languages because a) they were there, b) he found them exotic, interesting, fascinating and beautiful and c) he had a crush on someone who spoke the language. My reasons are very similar. As far as I know, most polyglots are that because of a) and b). Supply and demand. Why did you learn the languages you know? Why do you think I, Susanna, or any other female polyglot would have any other reasons? Because you looked at girls in French class in High School and thought it must be this way?nn”Women don’t bother trying to learn another language, men seem to have nothing stopping them from trying another language”.nSo, “Higamous, hogamous, women are monogamous”? nHideous hogwash, I say.nnI disagree with you. This “detail” has been left out of the debate (if there even is a debate) because it’s irrelevant, and doesn’t even answer the question

  5. I’m teaching my children Spanish. I’ve found several good blogs and websites created by women on the topic of teaching children Spanish.u00a0 In most cases, the websites are created by women who are mothers who have raised their children in a bilingual or multilingual fashion.u00a0 They are often teachers who work with very young children, or they are writers inspiring parents to raise their children in a language-rich environment.u00a0 Teaching and raising young children tend to be low-pay (and no pay!)u00a0and low-prestige positions, but it isu00a0clearly a role that au00a0lot ofu00a0women are passionate about.u00a0It is my observation thatu00a0the polyglot online communities and the teach-you-child Spanish communities don’t overlapu00a0a whole lot.u00a0 However, a lot of the techniques are similar, like using music and books and media as learning tools.

  6. Hi Suzanna, you make some really good points about the social acceptability and safety aspects of women wandering many parts of the world and striking up conversations with random strangers. In many places it’s simply an “invitation” for trouble. I also agree with your point about Japan. (I lived there for a few years.) Watching the foreign men there was totally bizarre, lapping it all up. Foreign women on the other hand were known as the third gender. Men (Japanese and foreign) were to be respected), Japanese women subservient, and foreign women, well they just didn’t really know how to treat us. On top of that, the Japanese language is extremely sexist, with women having to use the polite form when speaking to men, and men speaking to women in the informal form, the same as for children and underlings. The person I know who suffered the most in Japan was a Chinese woman who looked Japanese and spoke Japanese fluently. She had grown up in China, and thus was not socialised as a Japanese woman, and yet was expected to behave like one. I on the other hand could get away with being a stupid gaijin of whom there were not so many expectations.

    Back to the general topic, I know women who are fluent in multiple languages, but they are very busy bringing up families and having careers, and their linguistic ability stems from their life circumstances and is not regarded as being anything out of the ordinary. Also, millions of people in Africa and India are multilingual (much of the global linguistic diversity is concentrated on these continents) but they are probably focused on making a living and do not have access to the internet (about 94% DON’T have access).

    I agree with Benny’s point about men wanting to show off their language prowess. For someone who grew up as a monoglot, it’s a heady feeling to suddenly be able to communicate in other languages. Also, one of the motivations for men to learn languages is to be able to approach foreign women, in a general way. Have you ever heard of a woman learning a language in order to meet guys, generally (ie not someone in a relationship trying to improve her language skills). Also I noticed that you said that you surrender yourself to the language. On someone else’s blog, the blogger spoke about conquering the language. This of course does not really need much explanation. But think about it, to how many languages could you surrender yourself, it’s much more limited, where on the other hand, a person who is conquering languages wants to conquer and move on as fast as possible. (By the way, I love the way you expressed the idea of surrendering yourself to the language. And you can see it not just in the way you speak but also in your body language. In each language you become a native speaker.)

    • Thanks for your comments on how I embody the languages I speak. As for the conquer vs. surrender issue, I see the word “conquer” as antagonistic. We conquer that which is so opposed to who we are to change it. But we are not here to change the languages of other people. Rather we are learning languages to communicate with other people on their terms.

      As for women learning languages to meet men, I recall a male friend of mine who did a study abroad program in Paris. He was the only man in the program and he joked that many of the female participants were dreaming about meeting a charming and romantic Frenchman in Paris. Whether they learned French just to fall in love in France, I don’t know. But I do think it’s more common for men to learn languages to meet girls than the other way around.

      I agree that many women in India and Africa are multilingual and they are hidden from view on the Internet. I did a call with Fasulye and Jana Fadness about encouraging more women to learn and display their language skills. Here’s the video link:

    • Women can’t approach foreign men because foreign men can become hostile towards them since women in most foreign countries are to be passive, silent, inactive, and submissive.

    • Women cannot approach foreign men if they know their language or they end up being kidnapped, raped, and murdered since men feel it’s their job to pursue and not be pursued or they will feel emasculated.

  7. This is only my personal experience, based upon my life at home. When I meet Russians or French or Italian people, I always engage personally in their languages. At home, around my mono lingual family, if I start to talk about the joys of language, their eyes glaze over and the conversation is essentially over. Basically, it just bores them.
    So I’m left with what amounts to linguistic masturbation. Which isn’t much fun at all.

  8. Thanks so much for this article, Susanna. I am an aspiring polyglot (I speak French and Spanish) but am a beginner in other languages and apart from music, have never found a subject I care about more than languages.

    I have always felt a mental block against being vocal about my linguistic abilities. I have even felt averse to considering calling myself an “aspiring polyglot”.

    I am subscribed to your youtube channel and am very
    impressed with your work. I have noticed that you may be the only online well-known female polyglot while there are about half a dozen well known male polyglots. These men consistently receive more views and subscribers at an exponential rate, even though all of you are successful and competent in language.

    I instantly connected the disproportionate ratio of hits per video, subscribers, etc, to my life-long feelings of self-depreciation as a female linguist and now I fully see the misogyny behind what you and I and virtually every female polyglot has gone through.

    I know that people automatically trust the work and intellectual prowess of a man more than of a woman and for this reason, our achievements are collectively valued less. This is why there is a wage gap at all. This is why all my life (once my parents were able to see the potential success that linguists could have) they discouraged me from learning many languages and tried to convince me to pursue music instead.

    To conclude, I want to thank you very much for bringing this subject into the light. I
    have learned that there is a very simple yet overlooked way to bypass the ingrained misogyny and debunk the stereotype.
    Why, simply become a polyglot. Just do it. Do it because once you are a polyglot absolutely no one can shut you down or tell you can’t or try to deny your skills. If your skills are there, then they are there and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. No one has the right or even ability to take away your skills and your knowledge. I think it would be optimal for us women to just go above the ideas of the patriarchy and become successful, fearlessly.

    • Indeed, there is a HUGE discrepancy between the social media power of male polyglots and the few female ones out there. You are right, just learn languages and live your life to the fullest and don’t pay attention to societal barriers.

  9. #1 is true. Female polyglots are at higher risk for domestic violence and divorce in their marriages because their husbands often accuse them of cheating with foreign men more attractive than they are or abandoning them for them. Women are still considered property of their husbands and are expected to be submissive to them.

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